By Cindy Elmore
GREENVILLE (December 17, 2021) – I remember looking with horror at my county’s vaccination rate in August when we were about to go back to teaching in-person classes at East Carolina University. Forty-three percent. Surely the rate on my campus will be better than that, I thought.
It was, but not by much.
So my colleagues and I were both wary and worried. In those early days, COVID was nearly all anyone talked about.
There were daily COVID symptom screening emails, air purifiers in classrooms, giant hand sanitizer bottles and packs of extra masks in classrooms just in case a student forgot the masks they were required to wear every minute in class. We made seating charts and told students they had to sit in the same place all semester.
The questions were constant: Does a bandana over the mouth count as a mask? (It doesn’t.) Could we still have group activities and exercises in our classes? Yes, with student masking. How do we teach the quarantined students missing from our classes? Either video-record your classes or get the missing students the information another way.
Basically: Do the best you can. And we did.
Even before classes started, the “Covid emails” from and about students started coming in, like this one: “I am not feeling too well and woke up with some sort of stomach bug. I have been required to get COVID tested before Friday . . . and thought I should maybe go today since I’m not feeling well.”
It felt a bit like teaching a class of ping-pong balls, with some students in class, some in quarantine, some awaiting testing, and maybe a few just not up to it or recovering from the night before. After all, after almost two semesters apart, students were so excited to see their friends. Greenville’s downtown bars and clubs were packed, and Pitt County’s weekly COVID case rate skyrocketed in early September—not far behind what had been the all-time peak just after Christmas 2020.
In those early weeks, it felt like we were constantly on edge. I remember getting a text from a friend telling me his two very upset daughters at Carolina had been told UNC would shut down and go online. I wasn’t surprised and assumed we would soon follow suit. The news left me tired, though, after weeks and weeks of preparations to teach in person, only to be thrown online again just like in the fall 2020. But I soon learned it was just a rumor. Rumors were plentiful in those days as we thought constantly about how to make everything work and not get sick.
It wasn’t just faculty who were fixated on COVID. My students all seemed to choose topics related to the pandemic for the essays and articles they wrote in my classes. Masking. Vaccinations. Disinformation. Mental health. How to date if you want to stay safe. How careful and careless students can live together.
But here it is December, and we made it. Everything wasn’t perfect, but ECU did a lot of things right, and all in all, I was thrilled to be back in class. Teaching entirely online last year had been exhausting and disheartening, as students were unmotivated, cheating was pretty common, and my empathy was admittedly stretched to the limit.
But just like my students, I was happy to see my colleagues and elated to be at my job and out of the house. After a while, the student case numbers came down, teaching stopped feeling so daunting, and my friends and I stopped talking about COVID quite so much.
While it wasn’t always easy to hear the quiet students ask a question behind their masks, I never once had to remind a student to wear one. With some isolated exceptions, my students seemed engaged and accepting of this new pandemic version of higher education. Vaccination rates went up and the long lines for testing gradually dwindled. Some colleagues joked that the reason campus case numbers went down was because the unvaccinated students had all gotten COVID. Or maybe the weekly testing requirements for unvaccinated students and staff were bothersome enough to get more of them vaccinated. I don’t know.
Nor do I know what will happen next semester, with a new, highly transmissible variant on the loose. I don’t want to teach in a mask forever, nor do I want to forever have to guess which student is talking when I can’t see mouths moving. But I came to feel pretty safe in an environment where I never thought I would.
But hey, this is higher ed. We pulled off the ultimate research experiment.
Cindy Elmore is a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at East Carolina University.
Thomas Reiland says
I’m glad your classes went reasonably well. In my over 40 years on the faculty at NCSU the Fall 2021 semester was by far the most stressful. Teaching a face-to-face class of 350 enrolled students presented a daunting administrative challenge. At any point in time a notable number students either had Covid, were in quarantine, were waiting the results of a Covid test, were stricken with some other physical illness, or were experiencing documented mental stress that affected their academic performance.
Campus entities were very supportive and performed heroically. IT automatically recorded all lectures so that students not able to attend or not willing to risk attendance could keep pace. In-class testing was not an option; the campus exam proctoring center was essential in the effort to maintain course integrity by accommodating the many changes to student exam appointments, particularly during final exams when illness increased after students returned from Thanksgiving break. But even with this support, the raw numbers stressed remedial measures to the limit and resulted in a formidable, exhausting administrative grind.